Super Bowl pretty much all American

American football doesn't play outside the U.S.

By Nicholas Nehamas

Mathias Kiwanuka (97) hopes they'll be cheering in Uganda. (Reuters/Jim Young)

It may be a McWorld out there, but not when it comes to American football. Take the Super Bowl. A huge event in the U.S., watched by more than half the country last year, it barely makes a ripple outside of North America.

That may start to change as American football gets adopted in places like India. In November of this year, the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) will kick off with games between teams like the Bangalore Warhawks and Hyderabad Skykings. Players will all be Indian, many of them poached from local rugby sides, to great controversy.

India joins Canada as countries with significant American football leagues. Japan has a corporate league, and a surprising tradition of college football.

NFL Europe folded in 2007 after fifteen uninspiring seasons, but American football still has hopes for the home of everybody else’s football. Two days ago, Indianapolis Colts president Jim Irsay claimed future Super Bowls might take place at London’s flagship Wembley Stadium, which for the past five years has hosted a well attended regular-season NFL game. The St. Louis Rams recently agreed to participate in the next three English match-ups. Rams owner Stan Kroenke also controls the popular London-based soccer club Arsenal, and rumors are swirling that the restless Kroenke, who wants to move the Rams to Los Angeles,  will take them to London permanently if a move to Los Angeles falls through.

Sebastian Vollmer (R) hopes American football will become big in his native Germany. (Reuters/Gary Wiepert)

Though the NFL is nearly 97 percent American, there is an international cast of players in the game itself. New York Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka is the grandson of Benedict Kiwanuka, Uganda’s first prime minister until he was murdered by Idi Amin. Kiwanuka’s teammate, defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora was born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents, and two other players in the game were born to Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. — Giants safety Prince Amukamara and New England Patriots safety James Ihedigbo. Also playing is the Jamaican-born son of a half-Chinese father, Patrick Chung. Two Europeans play for the Patriots: offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer is from Germany, and punter Zoltan Mesko is from Romania.

Their friends and family may watch, but the Super Bowl could break viewing records yet again this year and still look less than stellar compared to the World Cup — 700 million people tuned in to watch Spain beat Holland in the 2010 World Cup Final.

If the game takes off in India, those numbers could change. American football icon Mike Ditka and former star quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Ron Jaworski have invested in the league.

Super Bowl XLVI kicks off at 6:30 PM EST. Overseas readers, will you be watching?

  • Justin Whitaker

    Yep. I’m an American studying Bristol, UK. I did a quick search and found several pubs/sports bars around here that will be showing the game (kickoff is at 11:30pm! yikes). I also found out that our University has an American Football team, who knew!? So far, I’ll be heading down to the game tonight with a Canadian guy and whoever else comes along :)

    • Anonymous

      hope you had fun!

      • Anonymous

        were other people at the pub into the game? did the owner stay open until the final whistle?

        also, what did you make of british singer M.I.A flipping the bird to the camera during half-time? The Guardian wrote: “You’d be forgiven for not having a coronary over the fact MIA gave Super Bowl viewers the finger during her half-time guest spot with Madonna. For most fans, it was probably more shocking to see MIA performing a rehearsed dance routine than flipping the bird.” ha!

        http://bit.ly/xNg09R

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=757612496 Christos-Athanasios Christofor

    Over the years, I’ve been more and more convinced that the popularity and hence the development of any sport in any country is mainly based on media coverage. The math is fairly simple: a kid that enjoys watching a sport or playing that sport’s virtual counterpart on his/her game console, is very likely to get involved and actually start playing that game in real life. The more kids get to play a sport, the more local goverments decide to invest on that sport, building training facilities and venues. And so the community grows and competition makes sure it stays on an upward path.

    This is how basketball became incredibly big in my homeland, Greece, mainly after the greek national team beat the USSR in 1987; after watching that euroleague finals, children got more and more involved. A little more than twenty years later, Greece is now a force to be reckoned with in the international basketball scene.

    Media coverage of the NFL outside the US is rather scarse; the time difference doesn’t help either. One-time promotional events (such as regular NFL season games played abroad) can’t possibly make a strong enough impression in countries where the word “football” is already associated with another game: soccer. In fact, to many people, the choice of the word “football” for a game that “barely features any ball kicking” has always seemed like another try of the US to differentiate itself from the rest of the world. This, combined with the fact that rugby, a fairly similar sport, is incredibly huge in many countries, contributes to the establishment of a “sport chauvinism”, leaving little space to american football.

    The greatest share of effective international promotion can arguably be attributed to video games. Everyone knows what a football player looks like but when you find someone that actually knows how the game is played, chances are he/she is a fan of the EA Sports Madden or NFL Street series…

    In any case, go Patriots.

    • Anonymous

      Interesting thoughts. But there was NFL Europe for 15 years. That’s a lot more than a one-off promotional game.

      Given that American football (and yes, soccer would be a better name for it than football) is faster and more exciting than rugby football, why didn’t it catch on?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=757612496 Christos-Athanasios Christofor

        You’re right, a 15-year league is definitely not a one-off occasion, but the funny thing is I didn’t even know about NFL Europe till I read this article. Looking up some Wikipedia articles made me understand why.

        A league that involves just five European countries makes for a rather weak attempt, both from a promotional and an organizational standpoint. I’m not familiar with the media coverage that NFL Europe got in European countries, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t enough. Seeing how most teams were German, I’d assume that this is where it got promoted the most; still, it had to face far more organized sports, that consequently offered far more games to watch during a year.

        In fact, creating a transnational European league should have been on the top of a pyramid, built from the ground up. A sport needs to start locally, as youth need to have the opportunity to get involved; plus, most of the times, people need a local favorite to relate to and root for, no matter how big of a team that is.

        If the NFL wants to expand its market, it has to work with TV networks from all over the world, giving them really cheap deals. Television rights for football in the US are the most expensive ones as networks “battle” to acquire them. This is clearly not the case in Europe; so the League’s business strategy must adapt.

        • Anonymous

          that’s a great point about having a local favorite. I always thought NFL Europe’s biggest flaw was that they used American players almost exclusively. As a result, the league became a “B” or back-up side for the NFL teams in America. who wants to root for a bunch of foreign minor-leaguers?! EFLI, for example, is using only Indian players and I think that will help them (if there turns out to be a market for American football).

          it’s also interesting what you say about the media creating interest in basketball in greece in the 80’s. the phenomenon works in reverse too!

          when greece won the 2004 european soccer championships, the 2005 eurobasket and beat the US in the 2006 world basketball tournament it created HUGE interest among greek americans. Now, in certain households, Papaloukas and Karagounis posters are right next to ones of Kobe and Jeter. I’m still waiting anxiously for Koufos or Schortsanitis to make some buzz in the NBA…

          do you know of any Greeks or Greek Americans who have a chance of breaking into the NFL? would that create some interest in Greece?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=757612496 Christos-Athanasios Christofor

            I’m sure they can make it work in India, simply cause they’re using the right recipe.

            The way media coverage and sports interest/development works is truly a “positive circle” of influence, as you’ve perfectly noted. Still, local problems such as corruption and organized crime can easily cripple everything people have been working for. I know this is exactly what has been happening for the past decades as far as Greek soccer is concerned and that’s the main reason why we’ve always been behind.

            As I’m completely new to football, I don’t really know of any Greeks or Greek Americans in the NFL. As I’m sure there must be some Greek Americans, I’m also sure that nobody raised in Greece would currently have the chance to even play American football in his backyard – one would probably have to import a football to begin with – let alone get the chance to be drafted!

  • Anonymous

    here’s my foreign, soccer loving friend’s take on American football: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2921382747214&set=a.2921382667212.2134527.1040173575&type=1&theater

  • Tim Mansel

    I suppose if you had lots of kids playing Football on PlayStation that might help. And yes, lots of tv coverage. But, speaking only for the UK, why do we need it? We have football, you have Football. We have cricket, you have baseball. I love baseball, but I don’t want to see it at Lord’s. And Michael – “American football faster and more exciting than rugby?” They spend most of the time standing around.